John Bennison Words and Ways | 2011 | April

On the Road Again, for the First Time: An Eastertide Commentary

 An Eastertide Commentary:

On the Road Again, for the First Time

Easter as a Way of Life, Not Eternal Life

[Note: To print and/or read a pdf version of this commentary click here. For context it will be extremely helpful to be familiar with the designated Common Lectionary Text found at the  end of the pdf version.]

Supper at Emmaus, He Qi , 2001.

 

Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  … When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. … They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?

 Luke 24:32

 

University of Cambridge science professor, Colin Humphreys, seems to be a man with too much time on his hands.  Based on exhaustive research and careful calculations of biblical, historical and astronomical data, he’s come to the conclusion the last supper Jesus enjoyed with his disciples before his crucifixion was (are you ready for this?) on a Wednesday, not a Thursday!

Apparently, he’s afraid some folks have long been troubled by the inconsistency between the three synoptic gospels, which assert the last supper occurred on the start of the Jewish Passover; while John says it took place before Passover. “Many biblical scholars say that, for this reason, you can’t trust the Gospels at all,” he says. “But if we use science and the Gospels hand in hand, we can actually prove that there was no contradiction.”

So, in his new book, “The Mystery of the Last Supper,” he explains there were two different calendars in use; an old Jewish calendar, and the other the more common lunar calendar. Reconciling the two somehow by some complicated calculations I do not presume to understand puts the Passover meal — and the Last Supper — on a Wednesday.

This not only conveniently keeps that famous dining experience neatly tied to the messianic fulfillment of Jesus being the new Passover’s sacrificial meal; it also helps explain how such a large number of events took place between the supper, the garden, the arrest, the trial (you know how backed up the court system can get), the flogging, the one-man parade to Golgotha, and the crucifixion.

Prof. Humphreys also believes a date could therefore be ascribed to Easter in our modern solar calendar, and working on the basis that the crucifixion took place on April 3, Easter Day would always be on April 5.  So much for the long-standing and totally non-theological method of finding the first Sunday, following the first full moon of the spring equinox.

With all due respect to Prof. Humphreys, I’d say trying to resolve inconsistencies in the Bible by scientific methodology is not only an impossible task, but unnecessary, irrelevant and counter-productive, as well.  It reduces what is true (or not “true”) about these stories to what is verifiable to factual and empirical evidence.

I’d suggest whether Jesus’ death happened on April 3rd — or his birth occurred on December 25th, or on any of the other 364 days of the year, for that matter — is of little consequence.  The fact that God has revealed a way of life in the one known as Jesus of Nazareth is the point.

Likewise, as important as table fellowship seems to have been to Jesus and his followers, whether Jesus last dined with his disciples on a Wednesday or a Thursday is not a deal breaker to this believer.

Moreover, I’m not sure what Prof. Humphreys would do with the Emmaus story and a post-Easter Jesus who is presumably present in some experiential way every time two or more are gathered in his name and bread is broken.

Whether Jesus last dined with his disciples on a Wednesday or a Thursday is not a deal breaker to this believer.  Moreover, I’m not sure what Prof. Humphreys would do with … a post-Easter Jesus who is presumably present in some experiential way every time two or more are gathered in his name and bread is broken.

The message of Easter is that the tomb is empty, and resurrection is about something more than resuscitation of what was once and is no more; it is about something other than the reconstitution of a corpse. The flesh and bone and blood of Jesus are dead and gone. Easter and resurrection are not about the immortality of what is, in fact, mortal.  In one gospel tradition, the absence of that old Jesus is evidenced by the angel’s simple words, “He’s not here.”

In another of the gospel versions Mary sees no resemblance in a risen Lord to the “earthly” Jesus, when she mistakes the former for a gardener. In addition to whatever resurrection is not, something else is clearly going on.

And finally, in Luke’s telling of the tale, this fact is made even more evident later the same day, when those two disheartened followers of Jesus are taking that trek on foot from Jerusalem to the sleepy village of Emmaus.  They are so downcast they cannot even lift their eyes to see a new day that has dawned.

Simply put, Luke’s early community of believers assigns a post-Easter Jesus the task of retrospectively interpreting for would-be believers how the ancient messianic prediction and promise the prophets had foretold had, in fact, been fulfilled in this new reality that requires a different way of seeing those old longings and imaginings.

In other words, the ritual table fellowship that had been an identifying hallmark of Jesus’ “earthly” ministry would become the sacramental sign by which the former disciples would be able to look and “see” their risen Lord, in experiential and transformative ways.

In fact, this would become so persuasively revelatory for these two “witnesses” in the Emmaus story, according to Luke’s faith community, that the need for any further post-resurrection appearances was instantly and utterly unnecessary.

To make that point dramatically clear, the moment they recognize this “new” Jesus – that is, the moment they “see” this new, revelatory truth for themselves – the transitory presence of a post-resurrection Jesus instantly vanishes.

Only then are they able to fully take in what they had already experienced.  And the first thing they did was to leave supper on the table, and hit the road again; yet strangely enough for what must have felt like the first time.  They rush back to rejoin the others, with the happy news of what they’d seen; what had “been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

By the end of that long, long day, they had been tired and footsore.  But now they found themselves nearly in a foot race, so eager were they to be the first to tell everybody and anybody who’d listen.  Suddenly the old road they’d travelled so many times before must have looked different to them.  With new eyes they saw a new and different way of travelling what had once been the old way.

Suddenly the old road they’d travelled so many times before must have looked different.  With new eyes they saw a new and different way of travelling what had once been the old way.

So, Easter is not about the eternal existence of Jesus of Nazareth.  Nor is resurrection about the immortality of some mortal beings such as you and me, who win for themselves a chance to escape our ultimate demise by reciting some magical (that “whosoever believeth …”) formula.

At the same time, resurrection is about life and death.  Those of us who’ve had the opportunity to experience a few of those little deaths along the way have gotten a glimpse of resurrection.

It is about dying to an old way of being, and being raised up to a new life, and a new way of being.  We come to know how this is made most evident in the way of life Jesus has shown us.  So resurrection is about a way of life, not eternal life.

Not only that, it is counter to just about everything to which we cling; most of all our own fear of losing and loss, our own mortality, and – as some have put it bluntly – the death of ego.  Contrary to what may be the most commonly assumed understanding of the meaning of Easter, resurrection is not about the eternal and perpetual existence of me.

In fact it is just the opposite.  It is about losing oneself to find oneself; and finding one’s truest self in a God who takes on nothingness in the form of death  (Philippians 2:7 — Paul describes it as “emptying himself,” taking on the form of a “slave,” same thing) for the sake of the other.

If there is anything life saving about this, then it is to be seen in this way of living in the world.

To “see” this, consider the two cases of Carlos Flores and Susan Guy, and their two life-and-death stories that are as amusing as they are illustrative:

Two months ago, on a Sunday morning, Carlos Flores, 36, was already running late when he got to the 103rd Street station in NYC; only to discover a crowd had gathered on the platform, where a man from East Harlem had fainted and fallen on the subway tracks below. Flores decided to attempt a rescue after seeing a digital countdown clock indicated the next train was still three minutes away.

“I jumped on the tracks. I grabbed him. I stood him up,” Flores later told a Daily News reporter. “I’m walking him toward the platform. A guy on the platform grabs his hands and pulls him to safety. Now I’m down there.  I turn around and the train’s coming.”

Fortunately, another traveler had informed the station agent of the emergency. The agent radioed into the Rail Control Center in time to notify the train’s conductor to stop the subway just as it entered the station.

When the reporter later interviewed the subway hero, they asked Carlos the question everybody asks ordinary human beings who step up and risk their life to save a total stranger from certain death.

Carlos replied in all candor, “I was thinking, If he gets hit, I can’t go to work. It’s Sunday. I can’t miss out. It’s a time-and-a-half day.” (!)

Later the same day, in Memphis, Domino’s Pizza delivery driver, Susan Guy, had been waiting for the daily order from her most faithful customer.  In fact, they’d often make the large pepperoni pizza ahead of time, knowing 82-year old Jean Wilson would be calling shortly.

But when the elderly woman who lives alone didn’t call as she had every day for the last three years, Susan grew concerned enough to tell her boss she was going to check on her, with or without a pizza.

When no one answered the front door, Susan called police, who discovered Jean lying on the floor inside. She’d fallen the day before, and was unable to get up and call for help.  Later, as Jean was recovering in a nearby hospital from her minor injuries, investigators mused how her daily diet of pepperoni pizza may have saved her life.

But others praised Susan, calling her a hero. “I’m overwhelmed,” she was reported saying. “I’m just a pizza deliverer, that’s all.”

In both stories someone’s life-saving effort saves someone else from an early demise.  Though the result is the same, if there’s a difference, of course, it’s about the way both so-called heroes went about what they did, not the one who’s life was “saved.”  Carlos was on his way to work, and Susan went out of her way.

In both stories someone’s life-saving effort saves someone else ….  Though the result is the same, if there’s a difference it’s about the way each so-called hero went about what they did …  Carlos was on his way to work, and Susan went out of her way. 

In his classic, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg writes,

“What the earliest layers of the gospel record reveal is that Jesus taught the “narrow way” as opposed to the broad way of convention and tradition. Both his life and his message were subversive and modeled the metaphor of death and resurrection as a way of life.  Discipleship was not about knowing new things or subscribing to certain theological statements or positions, but about the never-ending process of dying to an old self and being reborn into a new one.  It was made obvious by a new way of being in the world.”

Borg goes on to speak of the cost of choosing such a path; a cost those two early disciples racing back to Jerusalem from Emmaus may not have fully appreciated in their initial joy,

“Because such wisdom can make the scales fall from our eyes it often produces what French philosopher Jacques Lacan calls la douleur de voir trop cliar (the pain of seeing too clearly).  Opening oneself to this disparity between the world as it is and the world as God intends it to be leads either to despair or … to the kingdom of God … It is a table, laden with grace, at which the social maps are all redrawn.

At the onset of Holy Week this year, before the commemoration of the so-called “Last Supper,” we reflected on the characters of Judas and Peter.  We talked about betrayal and denial.  This time, it’s all about supper again; suggesting the “Last Supper” wasn’t, in fact, the last supper.

This time, it’s with Cleopas and another unnamed disciple who’s eyes are opened, their hearts are set ablaze with a message, and their lives (I suspect) are changed forever.  And, at the risk of Professor Humphrey’s shallow despair, this time it happened on a Sunday, not a Wednesday or a Thursday.

Much more recently, I would suggest the last time such bread was broken, with a way of life we might want to call resurrection, it was on a Monday.  The would-be disciple’s names were Susan and Jean.  And the bread they broke was made from pizza dough.

 

 

© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.

All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

 To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of progressive Christianity and spirituality go to the Words & Ways Archives: http://173.254.107.125/wordsnways

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Betrayal and Denial: Cheaters or Liars, Take Your Pick

[For context it will be helpful to be familiar with the Common Lectionary Text from Matthew,  provided witht a pdf version of this Commentary found here.]

A Commentary for Passion Sunday and Holy Week

 

Judas went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?”  … “The one I will kiss is the man.”
 
While they were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they all became greatly distressed and began to say to him, one after another, “Surely not I … Is it I, Lord?”
 
After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!”

Mt. 26:14-27:66

Prologue

Consider this: The four canonical gospels give somewhat different versions to explain how and why Jesus — the itinerant preacher of peasant stock from lower Galilee early in the 1st CE — got himself done away with by the ecclesiastical and political domination system of his day.

But all four gospels do include similar accounts of Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial; leaving us to have to decide forever afterward who was the bigger jerk.

What’s worse, betrayal or denial? Who’s worse, cheaters or liars?  Which is the greater faux pas?  And what can possibly redeem such falderal?

 

Commentary on this portion of Mathhew’s Passion Narrative

Had the plotline to this story been submitted for an episode of Law and Order, the script would have been found to be riddled with inconsistencies.  It just doesn’t make any sense.  Unfortunately, the gospel writer felt compelled to try to make sense out of it anyway; and explain why, in retrospect, it all had to happen the way he spins the tale.

Ever since boyhood, when I first heard this story told in all its gruesome detail, this is what I could never understand: If the entire crowd accompanying the arresting party could identify the one who had committed the alleged crime of preaching blasphemy in the temple, what need was there in bribing Judas to point him out?

And, if Jesus was going to incriminate himself in a kangaroo court, where the predetermined verdict was pretty much in the bag — despite the lack of credibility of conflicting false witness testimony — why even go through the motions of providing such a long-winded tale?

Equally problematic is any attempt to read any of the passion narratives in the gospels as resembling an accurate account of historical events; beyond the basic fact Jesus was executed.  For instance, if Jesus’ potential eyewitnesses all dozed off in the garden, who was left to record verbatim the master’s three tortured

soliloquies when he wandered off “a little further” by himself? Maybe he kept a journal, and just left it behind in Gethsemane?  Maybe some unnamed source with a very good memory was eavesdropping from the bushes; then able to repeat the account decades later?

And finally, because Matthew is always so hot on the idea that Jesus is the long-awaited messianic fulfillment of ancient Jewish prophecies, the lines attributed to Jesus  (e.g., “But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”) makes everything a foregone conclusion; and hence all the details rather superfluous, while the characters are merely unwitting pawns in the game.

On the other hand, if we were to consider the differing gospel versions from the perspective of each early post-resurrection faith community’s attempts to make sense out of the actual historical event of Jesus’ execution, the characters developed in the passion stories could be indicative of their own stories; including the very real and common human experiences of betrayal and denial.

It is not hard to appreciate how the story of Jesus’ execution became of penultimate importance to the early Christian church movement.  This bewildering turn of events was made even more tumultuous for this radically-new emerging religious sect’s own break from Judaism after 70 C.E., with the sacking of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple and all it represented.

Not only that, all this was happening as the early church struggled to create for itself a persuasive narrative that would have to compete to win hearts and minds, in a marketplace filled with various other religions that all had their own stories about dying and rising saviors.

The simple fact of the matter was this: What made this story of this particular execution of a no-name religious rabble rouser different was the difference it had made in the lives of those who had subsequently sought to know and follow a way of life embodied in the living presence of the one who had once walked the paths they still trekked.  For them, his voice could almost be heard in the wind.  And his most authentic teachings resonated so deeply within them, it was as if they’d been inscribed in their hearts.

How could they betray those words?  How could they deny the wind?

For them, his voice could almost be heard in the wind.  And his most authentic teachings resonated so deeply within them, it was as if they’d been inscribed in their hearts.  How could they betray those words?  How could they deny the wind?

Yet somehow, for some very real reasons, the stories of Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial must have struck a chord in them, as well.  As much as they’d have liked to have denied it, the stories of those two-faced, treacherous, fickle, frightened numbskulls might have been more reflective of the struggles of these subsequent would-be believers than they would have like to have admitted.

Which means, of course, that we too – removed as we are from any firsthand knowledge, so we might also be tempted to try to cloud the real issues in this story with irrelevant details — might be able to look and see a little Judas in us, and a little Peter, as well.  And, then we have to choose.

We can choose to either join the crowd, who always loves to find a scapegoat; the one in whom we can try to rid ourselves of our own complicit cheatin’ hearts (like Judas), and feign innocence, if not ignorance (like Peter).

Or we can own up to the times and places we betrayed someone or something, or acknowledge the harder truth when we were betrayed ourselves; when we thought love was real, or forgiveness had wiped the slate clean, or amendment of life counted for something, or we thought everyone believed in resurrection.

Or the times we’ve shrunk back from the fear of knowing more than we wanted to know about the meaning and the message of what it means when love gets nailed to a tree, and given up for dead.

We could peal away from the self-righteous crowds of certainty, judgment, and even fleeting orthodoxy; then withdraw to a lonely place, where we might just dare to ask ourselves just who do we resemble more, Judas or Peter?  And, perhaps more important still, can love crucified still find us, and bring us home?

We could peal away from the self-righteous crowds of certainty, judgment, and even fleeting orthodoxy; then withdraw to a lonely place, where we might just dare to ask ourselves just who do we resemble more, Judas or Peter?  And, more important still, can love crucified still find us, and bring us home?

So, first a word about Peter, then Judas.

Peter’s denial carries a double meaning, of course.  Fearing guilt by association, he disavows himself of any affiliation with the one with whom he’d been traipsing all over the countryside, sidling up to this charismatic charmer whom the crowds loved to throng.  He’d been Jesus’ right hand man, and he’d enjoyed the status and notoriety that had come with his association with the Man.  Now he was as eager to disown him as Judas was ready to hand him over.

The other meaning to Peter’s emphatic insistence that he did not know the man was, of course, that he didn’t really know the man.  Time and again in the gospel stories, Peter’s fickleness and fear is exceeded only by his lack of grasping what Jesus was saying, and who Jesus really was.

When the cock crowed it might have been more than making good on Jesus’ prediction.  The cock may have been mocking Peter’s feeble mind, as much as his trembling voice and those knees shaking with fright.  At least Judas may have had a better idea who Jesus was, and what he was all about. So, about Judas:

Perhaps Peter had a habit of nodding off before, like on one of those earlier preaching missions, when Jesus had been droning on, delivering that Sermon on the Mount, for instance.

Perhaps Peter was daydreaming about who-knows-what that day, while Judas had hung on every word the master uttered; weighing the implications and potential consequences of that subversive message about a different kingdom that was supposed to be right around the corner.

It must have been one of the Master’s most amazing sermons.  It was about a new reign of God, where the poor and the meek (not the rich and the powerful) are the ones who are blessed and would inherit the earth.

If you recall, it was Judas’ radical love of the poor in Mark’s tale in the earliest gospel tradition, when he criticizes Mary for squandering her money on costly oil to anoint the feet of the teacher; the one whom Judas came to fear he knew all too well.

As one hymn writer later composed it,

 Said Judas to Mary, “Now what will you do
With your ointment rich and so rare?”
“I’ll pour it all over the feet of the Lord,
And I’ll wipe it away with my hair,” she said.
“I will wipe it away with my hair.”
 
“Oh Mary, O Mary, O think of the poor.
This ointment it could have been sold;
And think of the blankets and think of the bread
You could buy with the silver and gold,” he said,
“You could buy with the silver and gold.”
 
“Tomorrow, tomorrow, I’ll think of the poor;
“Tomorrow,” she said, “not today;
For dearer than all of the poor in the world
Is the love who is going away,” she said,
“My love who is going away.”
 
Said Jesus to Mary, “Your love is so deep
Today, you may do as you will.
Tomorrow, you say, I am going away,
But my body I leave with you still,” he said,
“My body I leave with you still.”
 
“The poor of the world are my body,” he said,
“To the end of the world they shall be.
The bread and the blankets you give to the poor
You’ll know you have given to me,” he said,
“You’ll know you have given to me.”
 
“My body will hang on the cross of the world
Tomorrow,” he said, “not today.
And Martha and Mary will find me again
And wash all my sorrow away,” he said,
“And wash all my sorrow away.”

Said Judas to Mary, Sydney Carter

I wonder if Peter ever felt the least bit conflicted about what would later end up that strange dichotomy of the church of Christ the Victor, Christ the Vanquished; simultaneously bearing a message of deference to the poorest of the poor, while adorning itself with the opulence of the kind of self-adoration Jesus of Nazareth would have found utterly corrupt and blasphemous.

 Of the two, Judas certainly gets the bum wrap.  He’s singled out as the traitor, selling out the one whom they’d all previously made a commitment to follow.

Legend has it Judas couldn’t live with himself, and didn’t stick around for the end of the story.  And, the thirty pieces of silver was considered blood money, as untouchable as was he; or, so the story goes.  Tradition would relegate him to a place lower than the ranks of the marginalized and outcast; the place, coincidentally, where the one he’d once sworn he’d follow anywhere often associated himself.

Tradition would relegate him to a place lower than the ranks of the marginalized and outcast; the place, coincidentally, where the one he’d once sworn he’d follow anywhere often associated himself.

And for all his trouble?

I like to imagine the money might have been given to the poor, just as Mary’s extravagant, choice could have.

And in yet another imagined telling of his story, I wonder if he could have recanted his betrayal, following his guilt and regret; just as Peter repented of his own forsaking of Jesus.

 After all, that other culprit, Peter, the Rock — whose faith and fear were forever competing until such time as he discovers how to lose his own life to save it — becomes the cornerstone of the church.  He retracts his denial, and takes up the mantle of love crucified.  So much for denial.  So what of Judas and his one-time betrayal?

That other culprit, Peter, the Rock — whose faith and fear were forever competing until such time as he discovers how to lose his own life to save it — becomes the cornerstone of the church.  He retracts his denial, and takes up the mantle of love crucified.  So much for denial.  So what of Judas and his one-time betrayal?

By the time some of us gather Sunday on Easter Even, the retelling of the story of a dying and rising savior will have played itself out again.

 All the religious descendants (modern-day believers) of those first disciples who had fled in fear at the time of Jesus’ arrest, will have returned once again to at least get within earshot, to hear the outlandish tale of two women and an empty tomb.

 As Luke’s tradition will continue to weave the tale (and we will re-live it), late in the afternoon, two unnamed disciples will be met by their risen Lord on the road to Emmaus. Though neither will recognize him, both will finally come to know him in a moment that will change their lives forever.

The two unnamed disciples?  Perhaps their names were Betrayal and Denial.

© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.

All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

 To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of progressive Christianity and spirituality go to <http://173.254.107.125/wordsnways>

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